Many cows that go down close to calving are low in calcium or phosphorus, or both, and magnesium can play a role as well.
When colostrum is being formed, there is a large draw of calcium into the udder and this becomes the main cause of the deficiency. To compound the problem, some cows don’t eat enough free-choice minerals.
Before calving, cows need about 20 percent more calcium and about 40 percent more after calving. The low calcium could make them prone to prolapse of the uterus after calving, especially in dairy cattle.
Forage-based diets have little phosphorus so that may be deficient as well.
Every producer should have a couple bottles of calcium on hand, with a formulation recommended by their herd veterinarian.
Keep in mind if given intraperitoneally, it must be administered through a new needle to avoid introducing infection.
If given under the skin, split the amount up over several locations. There is also an injectable form called Thera calcium, and calcium boluses can often be used as well. The quicker the animals are treated, the better the recovery rate.
The previously mentioned treatments work if the cow was identified early enough. Otherwise, a large calcium surge delivered intravenously is necessary. Often your veterinarian will deliver this while at the same time listening to the heart to detect any irregularities and checking the cow for other causes such as mastitis injury, or twins pulling her down and making her thin.
Vets often take blood to determine whether levels of calcium and other macro-minerals are low and to come up with a prognosis. Most larger clinics can run the diagnostic tests in-house.
Your veterinarian may even suggest sampling a couple normal cows in the herd to see where the herd is at as far as macro-minerals go. The down cow could also be very old and lacking teeth, making mastication and hence digestion difficult. That is why cows with bad udders with pendulous teats, cows older than 10 years or those with temperament problems are good to cull to avoid issues at or near calving.
Often, it’s possible to get downed cows to rise. Some may need to have birthing induced if close enough to getting a viable calf. This gets more weight out of the cow’s belly.
Keep the cow in a well-bedded spot, relatively flat, and allow time.
If more than one cow is down, examine your mineral program and check with your nutritionist to make sure the macro-minerals are available in sufficient numbers.
The nutritionist will tweak the overall balance of the ration. The use of chelated minerals may also be started but check with the nutritionist. With each downer cow, the producer should assess its age, whether it is pregnant with twins and other possible enabling factors.
There have also been instances where several cows go down after being processed very close to calving.
It appears the stress of processing and being close to calving makes them more likely to go down.
Processing may have consisted of scour vaccines and selenium shots in some cases or clostridial vaccines in others.
Most of these cows will get up with a calcium-phosphorus-magnesium product. Carefully monitor the animals after administering the products because it may induce early calving.
I think we should attempt to not put heavily pregnant cows through the chute. In the last months of pregnancy there are tremendous demands on their bodies with the rapidly growing calf inside and in producing colostrum.
Producers who must process very pregnant cows should do so as low-stress and gently as possible.
Make sure trace minerals meet nutritional requirements, especially during the period a few months before calving and into the breeding season.
Remember, the one downer cow may be the tip of the iceberg and the rest of the herd could be teetering on the edge of a trace mineral deficiency.
There is a reason downers at calving occur and we must correct the problem to prevent other cases from developing.
Producers treating a downer animal should consult a veterinarian or nutritionist because tweaking the ration and adding supplements may prevent further cases.
Roy Lewis works as a veterinarian in Alberta.